- Small talk is not so small
- Clarity of Purpose: Have a Clear Voice and Clear Topic to Get your Message Across
- Technical Skills Can Land You a Good Job, but it Won’t Help You Climb the Job Ladder: The Importance of Communication Skills at Work
- At a Job Interview, Think of Your Experience as a Bunch of Brightly Coloured Story Balloons
- “The Machine Stops”: A 1909 novel by E. M. Forster that predicted our addiction with social media (like “Wall-E”, but written 100 years previously)
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- Listening and empathy
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- The Hero
My last blog was on learning how to become a great conversationalist through careful observation and listening, and asking targeted questions. As mentioned, when you do this, you can create a bond with the other person, and through such bonding, many wonderful things may happen. (https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/i-know-the-difference-between-open-ended-and-close-ended-questions-and-i-still-cant-talk-to-strangers-whats-going-on/).
I just finished a book by Michael Faber* called Under the Skin. What a strange book: part science fiction, part horror, part black comedy. After reading it, I realized that it perfectly illustrates how to use open-ended questions to create an empathic bond with others — but in this case, the reason for developing this empathy is so, so wrong.
Potential Spoiler Alert
The main character’s name is Isserley, and when you meet her, she is driving around Scotland, trying to pick up men: she only wants well-muscled, fit specimens. As you continue to read, you realise that there is something not quite right about her: her appearance, the way she talks . . . and that she happily anaesthetises each man after she’s chatted with him. Eventually you realise that she is taking them to her company’s headquarters so her colleagues can kill them for meat. Isserley and her co-workers come from another planet, and they do not recognise us Earthlings as being truly human; they do love munching on our tender flesh, however.
Isserley understands that she must select people who do not have family or friends in the area, because their absence would be immediately noted; hence, she drives extremely carefully to avoid police detection and asks all her potential victims targeted, open-ended questions to get them to open up to her so she can ascertain whether they can safely disappear. Forever. Bums, drunkards, students, professionals; she knows how to chat them all up.
Below are two examples of her conversations with potential victims. I have sometimes changed the words to standard English versus the thick Scottish dialect Faber has his characters speak. (I stands for Isserley and V for Victim.)
I: “So what brings you out on the road today?”
V: “Staying at home was driving me crazy.”
I: “In between jobs, then?”
V: “Jobs don’t exist up here. No such fuckin’ thing.”
I: “The government still expects you to look for them though, doesn’t it?”
Go, Isserley. She infers that the guy is out of work because he is staying at home all day. Aha! If this guy isn’t working, maybe he doesn’t have a lot of contacts, so he could be a possible specimen.
I: “What is there for you in Thurso?
V: “I don’t know. Perhaps nothing.”
I: “And if there is nothing?”
V: “I’m going there because I have never been there.”
I: “You’re travelling through the entire country?”
I: “Travelling alone?”
I: “For the first time?”
V: “When I was young I have travelled a lot in Europe with my parents.”
OK, she does ask close-ended questions as well, but Isserley is weaving a web of questions around her victims, just as a spider does to a fly. Very soon, these men find themselves giving away far too much information under her seemingly harmless queries.
Hopefully, you do not want to create empathy for destructive purposes! I hope it can be argued that one can learn from terrible people (or aliens) as well as from wonderful ones . . . and fiction, in the hands of a skilful writer, can illuminate communication better than almost anything.
Next time you pick up a book, start noticing the type conversations the characters have with each other. Doubtless you can learn tons from your own books, as well. Feel free to email me with interesting titles!
*Under the Skin by Michael Faber. New York: Harcourt, 2000.
(In 2014, this book was the inspiration for a film of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson.)
I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: www.eloquentenglish.com.
I offer workshops in public speaking, self presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.
I know the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions—and I still can’t talk to strangers! What’s going on?
I was leading a workshop on Having a Conversation with Australians several weeks ago when a participant stated, “Look, I understand that you’re to ask people open-ended questions in order to have a good conversation. But once I ask this type question and they give a response, I’m like, ‘Uhh . . . OK,’ and then I don’t know what to do.”
Excellent point. First, let’s backtrack a bit.
#1, what’s the issue with open-ended and close-ended questions and socialising? Open-ended questions are just that: a question that requires more than a “yes-or-no” response. Close-ended questions are answered with a single “yes”, “no” or single-word response.
Close-ended question: Did you have a good time at footy yesterday?
Open-ended question: Tell me a little about the footy game you went to over the weekend; I’ve never been to one and am thinking of going to a game.
A: Well, FIRST . . . (and away they go!)
I’m sure you can see how trying to generate open-ended answers will be much more fruitful—and interesting—than simply getting a lot of “Uhh . . . yes . . . no . . . yellow!” as responses. That’s like pulling teeth! Generating extended narratives and (potentially) exciting stories is what you want for the following reasons: 1) The speaker will think YOU are a fabulous conversationalist (even though YOU’RE doing all the listening) and 2) You can really get to know a person this way and create a bond with that person. Which is what you want, whether you are seeking potential mentors, friends or business connections.
Active listening is what it’s all about.
But that workshop participants had a good point. Plying the active listening trade really is easy, but you should know a few tricks in order to become a master.
Let me give you an example. This young participant and I were doing a role play about chatting with someone in a café. The conversation was to be on coffee. (And using the old “come-here-often”? ploy usually falls F.L.A.T.)
P (participant): “So, err, what kind of coffee do you prefer?
M (me): “Black, usually.”
P: “Uhh . . . OK . . .” and she looked at me helplessly and fell out of her role. “See, now I don’t know what to do!”
So, what DO you say, now that you know this person likes black coffee? Lots! Scour your brain. What do you know about black coffee and human beings? Keep being focused on that person. Look at that individual closely and try and make connections between coffee and that individual. It’s not about YOU, it’s about the PERSON YOU’RE TRYIING TO GET TO KNOW. Here are a few options. They may not be witty, but they’ll get the job done and will require a detailed response from the other individual:
Black! Wow. You must be a real coffee connoisseur.
I tried drinking black, but I need milk and sugar. How do you get used to drinking black coffee?
Are there certain coffee beans that you like more than others?
I also love black coffee. Do you think certain types of people that like their coffee black? (This one may be a bit . . . yukky, perhaps like you’re trying to flirt. And if you are—try it!)
You look very fit (if the person does look athletic). Do you deliberately drink black coffee as part of your diet? (This response will give the person a compliment, AND demand a more detailed answer—killing two proverbial birds with one stone! Good on ya!)
You might NOT want to puff up your own knowledge and say things such as: “Coffee originated in Ethiopia, you know. . .” and then spout a litany of facts, or say, “I read a report that stated that drinking black coffee can make your hair fall out.” Remember, it’s not about you.
Let’s say this person answered to your #2 question, on getting used to drinking black coffee:
It took me a few years, but now I can’t stand milk or sugar in my coffee; it’s too sweet and rich for me that way.
Now, THERE’S an opening. You could then say:
You must be a disciplined person. Are you disciplined in other areas, as well?
Let me guess. You don’t consume many sweets, do you?
Do you eat cheese, then? Cheese has milk in it. I couldn’t live without cheese! (OK, this response DOES have “you” in it, but you are humorously contrasting yourself with that person who you are praising as being very disciplined.)
I hope you see the pattern here. FOCUS ON the person, LISTEN to the person’s response, make connections, actively show your interest in what that person has to say and see where it takes you.
I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: www.eloquentenglish.com. I offer workshops in public speaking, self presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.